Today, out of the blue, there have been a series of announcements about travel in London that are seriously concerning many disabled people. Moving about this vast city as a disabled person can be tricky with a transport system that’s already far from equal. Today’s announcements risk amplifying that inequality and writing disabled people out of public spaces. Disabled people have been sent a clear message about how little we are valued. The detail of these announcements is still unclear and there’s a lot of confusion about what they mean. I’ve also seen a lot of mis-information about disabled people’s access to travel in the capital and beyond, so this post is urgent.
There have been three main announcements, and though they lack detail, they’re all worrying in different ways. They are:
1) Possible changes to travel passes in London for disabled people, the over 60s and young people
2) The introduction of ‘car free’ zones in key areas of the city
3) Confusion surrounding the ‘turn up and go’ policy across London stations. Yes, there does have to be an actual policy that gives disabled people ‘permission’ to turn up at a station and expect to travel, but whether or not this is still in place is unclear!
Before discussing these changes, I’d like to explain a few things about the day-to-day reality of travelling as a disabled person in London. As I write these words, I feel an overwhelming wave of emotion as my brain taps into the countless times I’ve been made to feel unwelcome and unequal while travelling. This includes experiencing vicious hate crime, being kicked off buses, refused help, ignored or driven past by bus drivers on a regular basis. If you don’t have lived experience of these issues, it’s very easy for them to be invisible and for you to assume that public transport is much more accessible than it is. So, here’s some key information before we go any further.
Most stations are not accessible – Only 50 of 270 (18.5%) London Underground stations are fully accessible, so 82% of the network is straightforwardly not accessible to me and other people with mobility impairments. This means relying on buses for the majority of journeys, and bus journeys take considerably longer than the tube.
Journeys are often more complicated for disabled people – The accessible stations are not evenly distributed across the city. They tend to be the new stations at the edges of the network, so while you might be able to travel from one side to another, getting off anywhere in central London is tricky. Only 4 (6%) of around 70 stations in Zone 1 are fully accessible, and that means 94% of central London stations are non-accessible. So, the service for disabled people is clearly less good than for our non-disabled peers.
Journeys are often more expensive – Not all disabled people can get a disabled person’s Freedom Pass. The eligibility criteria are strict and only those with significant levels of impairment are entitled to one. If you are eligible, you’re almost certainly in the group for whom there are substantial barriers to getting about. Many disabled people, including myself, cannot travel alone, but there are no concessions or passes for carers or personal assistants. This means that if I didn’t have my Freedom Pass, I’d have to pay twice for every journey, for myself and for my PA. Disabled people may need to get on and off public transport more frequently in order to manage a medical condition or, as I’ve often experienced, because of other passengers’ behaviour.
Disabled people don’t get free cars – There’s a myth that disabled people are given vehicles for free, but this simply isn’t true. There’s a scheme called Motability which allows you to lease a car, using the mobility element of your Personal Independence Payment (PIP), but only if you get the enhanced rate. And at the moment, because of COVID-19, Motability has stopped taking new referrals.
Disabled people receive a lesser service – In the 1990s, Disabled activists chained themselves to buses to draw attention to inequality in transport. Their major achievement was that, from around 2003, London’s bus network has been technically wheelchair accessible.
But as I’ve written about before, the fact is that bus travel is far from equal. As a wheelchair user I can use only one of the 82 spaces on an average London bus, and although wheelchair users are meant to get priority use of this space the reality is very different. When I’ve analysed my own experiences, I’ve found that I have an issue with access to buses 80% of the time.
Disability-related hate crime is rising – And hate crime on public transport is common, as a book published in January this year reveals. It exposes the ‘horrifying’ levels of abuse faced by disabled people while travelling.
The majority of disabled people work – Contrary to popular belief the majority of working-age disabled people (53.2%) work, which is just one reason why we need reliable public transport along with everyone else.
So, to summarise, travelling in London as a disabled person takes longer, costs more, is much less reliable more stressful, and can easily lead to a hate crime. Many of these issues also affect older Londoners and parents or carers with young children.
Access to travel matters for everyone because it fundamentally affects your ability to work, manage your health, see friends and family, and participate in our society.
Now, the changes that have just been revealed:
Disabled people already receive a second-rate service and the statements made today could make the situation considerably worse. Here’s what we know about them and why they’re so worrying.
Changes to travel passes
The UK is the only country in Western Europe that doesn’t publicly fund the transport system in its capital city. It used to, but in the last few years this has been cut and Transport for London (TFL) is now largely paid for by fares. This means that COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown have had a huge impact on their income and therefore their ability to cover costs. TFL got to the point where it was just hours away from going bankrupt and consequently the Mayor of London and the Government have been in negotiations for the last few weeks about a bail-out.
As part of the bail-out deal announced today there will be an end to free travel for young people, and it seems likely that restrictions will be placed on the times that disabled people and the over 60s will be able to use their travel passes. The detail of this is unclear, one news outlet reported that disabled people’s travel won’t be affected. However, looking at what’s been announced and TFL’s own uncertainty, it seems likely that ‘disabled people’ will not be able to use their Freedom Passes at peak times.
This is deeply worrying, not only because it makes an already very unequal transport system even less fair, but also because Freedom Passes seem to have been regarded as a ‘perk’ that disabled people have, rather than as a measure that recognises the deeply unequal service we receive.
The other embedded assumption is that disabled people don’t need to travel at peak times. If I needed to travel for work or a hospital appointment with my PA, I’d not only need to pay, I’d have to pay twice!
I hope things will get clearer in the next few days, but as it currently stands, this change looks like a blatant breach of the Equality Act 2010, and it seems very unlikely that an Equality Impact Assessment has been carried out. Disabled people who are already being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, now seem to be being further affected by this bail-out deal.
Unreliable ‘turn up and go’ service at London Stations
London is huge and the Overground trains are an essential part of the transport network. For national rail journeys, disabled people are expected to phone up and book assistance for ramps or wheelchair spaces at least 24 hours before travelling. For local trains in London there’s been a ‘turn up and go’ service so that disabled people, like other Londoners, can arrive at a station and get on a train. A booking system for these services would seem vastly unfair and impractical – imagine having to phone and book 24 hours in advance of your commute to work every day.
But there are reports that some stations are refusing to help disabled passengers who haven’t booked. In fact refusing help with boarding trains has been an ongoing issue for some disabled people, including keyworkers, since the start of the pandemic.
It’s not disabled people’s fault that there’s no level boarding on trains – I’d much rather be able to wheel myself straight onto a train rather than rely on help from station staff. But this is the system that’s been created, and to suddenly stop providing it without any workable alternative is discriminatory.
Watching videos of wheelchair users begging to be helped onto trains so they can get to work or get home is deeply upsetting.
Thanks to the lockdown, air and noise pollution in London is better than I can ever remember, and I’d love to see the environmental benefits continue. Today an ambitious car-free plan for London was announced but, again, there seems to have been little consideration given to the requirements of disabled people. Many of the areas that are being proposed as car-free are in central London where there are no accessible Underground stations.
The announcement says people will be encouraged to ‘walk or cycle for journeys from mainline rail stations’, but what happens for people who can’t walk or cycle?
It also said: “Public transport must now be a last resort. Londoners must continue working from home and spend more leisure time in local areas.”
That’s all very well, but several of the hospitals where I receive treatment are in the proposed car-free zones, so how am I supposed to get to these appointments?
The announcement included lots of quotes from various organisations, but none from those representing disabled and older people. The lack of information and detail is likely to have ratcheted up anxiety levels for many disabled Londoners.
My fear that disabled people will be forgotten as the rest of the UK unlocks, is starting to be realised.
While many of us are still in lockdown we need all non-disabled people and decision-makers to be our supporters and allies. I ask all Londoners to help make sure that disabled people aren’t permanently locked out of our city.
It’s taken a great deal of time and emotional energy to write this, time I would much rather have spent in other ways. The announcements today have left me feeling sad, angry and undervalued.
This pandemic’s created enormous challenges for many people, organisations, and social systems, but the solution to these mustn’t be to make things harder for those who already come up against the most barriers. In one day, disabled Londoners have seen their world shrink.